No one seems to have done the hard work of deciding what the film should be about.
Each year, on the first Monday in May, the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art launches a special exhibition. That same day, the Museum closes to host a benefit gala, complete with red carpet, attended by the kind of celebrities that usually attend galas. In 2015, the special exhibition was “China: Through the Looking Glass,” a collaboration between the Costume Institute and the Division of Asian Art. It was truly spectacular and also turned out to be the most popular show in the history of the Costume Institute—over 815,000 people visited it over a four-month period—and the fifth most attended exhibition ever for the Museum.
That exhibition, and the 2015 gala, are the subjects of Andrew Rossi’s documentary The First Monday in May. Rossi and his crew enjoyed extraordinary access to both the process of creating the exhibition, and the opening night and accompanying gala, and captured some truly interesting footage along with a lot that is pedestrian. Unfortunately, no one involved with this project seems to be able to tell the difference, and no one seems to have done the hard work of deciding what the film should be about and then editing the available material to that end. The result is a fragmented and disappointing documentary that tries to do too much and ends up not doing much of anything very well, least of all exploring the connections (and there are many) among art, fashion, and celebrity.
That’s a shame, particularly considering how spectacular the exhibition was: a feast of interesting ideas and images, using dramatic juxtaposition (e.g., placing a modern dress next to traditional garment of similar design, or a piece of pottery next to a garment using a similar pattern) and film and other media to heighten the viewing experience. (In case you were wondering, I visited this exhibition it several times, and would gladly have visited it several more.)
Most of First Monday is devoted to the work of creating the exhibition, presented chronologically (maybe Rossi learned something from the criticisms of his scrambled chronology in Page One), with title cards popping up at regular intervals to let you know how many months remain until opening night. So far, so good—the problem is what he chose to include within that chronology. Why in the world do we need to know that Vogue moved their offices during the filming period, for instance? Why are there so many shots of people opening doors, walking down the street, or riding in cars? Why are we given a better sense of the Alexander McQueen exhibition, spectacular as it was, than of the exhibition that is the ostensible subject of this film?
First Monday is also salted with little snippets of notables weighing in on questions like whether fashion can ever be considered art, but frequently what they have to say is either trite or rambling, in either case taking up screen time without adding anything interesting or enlightening to the film. At times, it seems like Rossi felt that the mere presence of fashion superstars (and there are many in this film, including Anna Wintour, Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano, and Costume Institute curator John Bolton) should be enough for his audience, so that capturing them on film was all that was required of him as a director.
Most of what is shown of the completed exhibition was shot on gala night, so you see it in the company of celebrities like Kate Hudson, Michael Bloomberg, and Alicia Keys. In case you were wondering, they ooh and ah and make mundane comments like “This room is a dream!” and “How do you think that would look on me?” pretty much the way you might if you saw it in person. Justin Bieber also does a little a capella singing in the Egyptian galleries, which you probably would not do, but the need to include that clip in this particular film escapes me.
In fact, First Monday could be more accurately titled “A lot of miscellaneous stuff related in some way to the Costume Institute’s annual gala, its 2015 China exhibition, and the people involved with each.” I had a similar problem with Rossi’s 2011 documentary Page One, which put me in the minority among critics, so if you liked his approach in that film, you may like it in this one as well. Just don’t come expecting to get any sense of the exhibition, be enlightened about the importance of fashion, or see anything on the red carpet substantially different from what you can see for free each year at the Oscars. | Sarah Boslaugh